Deal to keep 1.5C hopes alive is within reach, says Cop28 president

<span>Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

An “unprecedented outcome” that would keep alive hopes of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C is within reach, the president-designate of the UN Cop28 climate summit has said – and even Saudi Arabia is expected to come with positive commitments.

Significant progress has been made in recent weeks on key aspects of a deal at the crucial meeting that starts in Dubai this week, with countries agreeing a blueprint for a fund for the most vulnerable, and reaching an important milestone on climate finance.

Sultan Al Jaber, who will lead the talks on behalf of the Cop28 host country, the United Arab Emirates, told the Guardian in an exclusive interview on the eve of the talks that the positive momentum meant the world could agree a “robust roadmap” of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 that would meet scientific advice.

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“I have to be cautiously optimistic,” he said. “But I have the levers and the traction that I am experiencing today that will allow for us to deliver the unprecedented outcome that we all hope for.”

He added: “Getting back on track, and ensuring that the world accepts a robust understanding of a roadmap to 2030 that will keep [a temperature rise above pre-industrial levels of] 1.5C (2.7F) within reach is my only goal.”

World leaders and heads of state and government, including King Charles III, the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the pope, will attend the first few days of the fortnight of talks, which begin on Thursday. Joe Biden of the US and Xi Jinping of China are not expected to attend, but will send high-level representatives.

More than 70,000 delegates are expected, and ministers and high-ranking officials from 198 countries will try to forge agreement on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions urgently in order to hold global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, a target that is slipping rapidly out of reach as temperatures soar and carbon emissions continue to rise.

Al Jaber is also chief executive of the UAE national oil company, Adnoc. Campaigners have decried this as a conflict of interests, but Al Jaber has insisted it will help him to engage businesses and other oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, a close ally of UAE, and the world’s second biggest oil producer behind the US.

Saudi Arabia has long been seen as an obstructive element in the annual conferences of the parties (Cops) under the UN framework convention on climate change.

Al Jaber hinted that new commitments from the country were possible, after meetings when the government had shown “positivity, engagement, receptive to my cause and my call to actions … towards achieving the most ambitious climate action outcome at Cop28”.

A person walks near signs for the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates
More than 70,000 delegates are expected to attend the Cop28 talks, which begin in Dubai on Thursday. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

“They have been cooperating and they’re coming with ambition,” said Al Jaber. “They have been engaging in a collaborative manner across all climate areas.”

There were still questions over how exactly to address the issue of fossil fuels in the final outcome of the two-week conference, he noted.

Some countries want a “phase-out” of fossil fuels, while others are resisting. A compromise commitment to a “phase-down of unabated fossil fuels”, meaning a gradual reduction of coal, oil and gas that is used without carbon capture and storage technology, is also seen as possible by some.

Al Jaber said: “I am inviting and incentivising and motivating all parties to engage in a collaborative manner to see and assess how we can include fossil fuel in the negotiated text, that will cater for consensus and common ground, while keeping 1.5C within reach.”

Campaigners have also questioned the presence of fossil fuel companies and lobbyists at the talks, and leaked documents show the UAE planned to use Cop28 to promote oil deals. Al Jaber said representation from the fossil fuel industry was needed.

“The International Energy Agency [in a recent report] tells us that all sectors must be part of the solution,” he said. “Real tangible climate action will only come with everyone being held responsible and accountable. [We need] to ensure that they all progress towards an energy transition. And you can’t do that without including the heavy-emitting industries as well as oil and gas.”

Earlier this month, a compromise was reached among rich and poor countries over setting up a new fund for loss and damage – the rescue and rehabilitation of poor and vulnerable countries struck by climate disaster. However, the fund has yet to be filled, and both rich industrialised countries and emerging economies such as China and oil producer countries are expected to contribute.

Al Jaber said he was hopeful of progress on this effort. “We will leave the parties to decide when we start seeing pledges,” he said.

Al Jaber said he was “energised” but noted that “while I very much appreciate the momentum we have and the very solid traction we are all experiencing, there is still some chatter out there, if I can move things forward or not”.

He urged countries not to stall agreement until the final days, which many poor countries accused rich countries of doing last year, at Cop27 in Egypt, to widespread anger. “I don’t want parties to keep their cards close to their chests until the last minute,” he said. “The earlier they open up and engage and collaborate, the more will be done.”

The Guardian has approached the Saudi Arabian government for comment.

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